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LIVE STREAM: Senate Intel hearing on social media influence on 2016 elections, Russia (11/1/17)

Watch the Senate Intel hearing on Facebook, Twitter, Google LIVE at 9:30 a.m.

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(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold an open hearing on the influence of social media in the 2016 U.S. Elections, as it pertains to Russian interference.

You can watch the hearing live here on ClickOnDetroit.com at 9:30 a.m.

Senators blast Facebook, Twitter, Google in Russia probe

Exasperated U.S. senators harshly criticized representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google at a hearing Tuesday for not doing more to prevent Russian agents interfering with the American political process as early as 2015.

At one point, Sen. Al Franken shook his head after he couldn't get all the companies to commit to not accepting political ads bought with North Korean currency.

The hearing by a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary panel was moved last week into a cavernous hearing room usually reserved for high-profile events like Supreme Court confirmations. About 50 people waited to get in as senators fired pointed questions and waved at cardboard displays of outrageous ads.

“People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads,” Franken fumed. “You put billions of data points together all the time. ... Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmmm, those data points spell out something pretty bad?’ ”

Technology company representatives fumbled at points. After Franken pointed out foreign spending on U.S. political campaigns is illegal, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, replied only that the search giant would refuse political ads paid with foreign currency “if it’s a good enough signal on illegality.”

“In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens,” said Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch.

The companies all pledged to do more and politely said they understood the seriousness with which lawmakers are taking the question of Russian meddling.

PRESSURED TO SUPPORT LEGISLATION

Sen. Amy Klobuchar pressured the representatives to support her “Honest Ads” bill, which she is co-sponsoring with Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. John McCain, and which would bring political ad rules from TV, radio and print to the internet.

She dismissed pledges from the companies this week to be more transparent about political ads as an unenforceable “patchwork” of self-policing.

“We’re not waiting for legislation,” said Stretch, before Klobuchar cut him off and repeated her demand for a yes or no answer.

“We stand ready to work with you and your co-sponsors on that legislation going forward,” Stretch replied, echoed by Twitter’s and Google’s representatives.

Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy browbeat Stretch into admitting that Facebook had no way of knowing the true identity of all of the 5 million advertisers that use its platform every month.

“Of course, the answer is no,” Stretch said.

INVESTIGATIONS HEATING UP

The hearing — the first of three this week in which the three tech giants face a public grilling — comes amid the increasing pace of investigations into the Trump administration’s possible link to Russia.

Court papers unsealed Monday revealed an indictment against President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea by another adviser, who admitted to lying to the FBI about meetings with Russian intermediaries.

Just five of the full committee’s 11 Republicans attended the Senate subcommittee hearing, while all nine Democrats showed up.

On Wednesday, representatives of all three companies face hearings by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

MASSIVE REACH

In preparation for Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook disclosed that content generated by Russia’s infamous troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, potentially reached as many as 126 million users.

The company said IRA-linked accounts generated 80,000 posts on 120 pages between January 2015 and August 2017. Possible views reached the millions after people liked the posts and shared them.

Facebook had earlier turned over more than 3,000 advertisements linked to the agency. The ads — many of which focused on divisive social issues like immigration and gay rights — pointed people to the agency’s pages, where they could then like or share its material.

Twitter said it uncovered and shut down 2,752 accounts linked to the IRA, nearly 14 times as many as it handed over to congressional committees three weeks ago.

The Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4 million election-related tweets from September through Nov. 15 last year — nearly half of them automated. The company also found nine Russian accounts that bought ads, most of which came from the state-backed news service RT, previously known as Russia Today.

And Google said it found evidence of “limited” misuse of its services by the Russian group, as well as some YouTube channels that were likely backed by Russian agents.

Google said two accounts linked to the Russian group spent $4,700 on ads on its platforms during the 2016 election. The company also found 18 YouTube channels likely backed by Russian agents. Those channels hosted 1,108 videos with 43 hours of material, although they racked up just 309,000 views in the U.S. between June 2015 and November 2016, Google said.

MISLEADING ADS REVEALED

Sen. Richard Blumenthal revealed some of the ads taken out by Russians, including one that showed comedian Aziz Ansari holding up a sign that said “Save time, avoid the line, vote from home,” a message that falsely suggested voters could cast ballots by text message.

Another Twitter post urged voters to text “Hillary” to 59925 to cast their vote.

Blumenthal pressed Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett to commit to researching how many voters may have been misled into incorrectly believing they had voted because of the posts.

Facebook estimates 126 million people were served content from Russia-linked pages

Facebook will inform lawmakers this week that roughly 126 million Americans may have been exposed to content generated on its platform by the Russian government-linked troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency between June 2015 and August 2017, CNN has learned.

That estimate, which is equivalent to more than half of the total U.S. voting population, offers a new understanding of the scope of Russia's use of social media to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and in American society generally.

In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch says that 29 million people were served content directly from the Internet Research Agency, and that after sharing among users is accounted for, a total of "approximately 126 million people" may have seen it.

Facebook does not know, however, how many of those 126 million people actually saw one of those posts, or how many may have scrolled past it or simply not logged in on the day that one of the posts was being served in their News Feed.

Stretch also says in his testimony that Facebook estimates 11.4 million people saw ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency between 2015 and 2017. But the full, organic reach of content posted by the troll farm-linked pages was more than 10 times higher.

Nevertheless, Facebook says in its testimony that the posts from those pages represented "a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook."

"This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content," Stretch writes. "Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you'd have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the IRA."

Lawyers for Facebook, Twitter and Google will appear in public hearings before a Senate Judiciary subcommmittee and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees this week, where they will face questions over how their platforms were used by Russians to meddle in U.S. politics.

In its own written testimony, also obtained by CNN, Twitter disclosed that it identified 2,752 accounts that were linked to the Internet Research Agency. Those accounts posted a total of 131,000 tweets in the period ranging from September 1, 2016 to November 15, 2016.

During that same period, Twitter found a total of 36,746 accounts that appeared to be associated with Russia -- but not necessarily with the Internet Research Agency -- and which generated automated, election-related content, the testimony states. Those accounts produced approximately 1.4 million tweets which together received 288 million impressions, according to Twitter's testimony as prepared.

Both the Facebook and Twitter written testimonies stress that Internet Research Agency-linked accounts represent an extremely small part of the platforms' overall content.

Both also provide detailed accounts of how the companies' security operations dealt with foreign interference and fake accounts in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, as well as the respective steps they are taking to prevent foreign meddling in the future.

But the key focus for lawmakers will likely be the content and reach of the content posted and promoted by the Internet Research Agency.

In Facebook's testimony, Stretch calls the content of the Russian-bought ads "deeply disturbing," and says it was "seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other."

"Most of the ads appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights," he writes. "A number of the ads encourage people to follow Pages on these issues, which in turn produced posts on similarly charged subjects."

That characterization of the Russian-bought ads is consistent with what both Facebook representatives and lawmakers have said in the past, as well as with CNN's reporting on the content of specific accounts and ad campaigns.

Facebook first informed lawmakers in September that it had identified 470 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, and that those accounts spent approximately $100,000 on more than 3,000 ads between June 2015 and August 2017.

The new testimony reiterates those numbers while also noting that the IRA-bought ads promoted roughly 120 IRA-generated Facebook Pages, "which in turn posted more than 80,000 pieces of content between January 2015 and August 2017."

Stretch's testimony also discloses that some of the 3,000 ads also appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

The House Intelligence Committee is expected to release the Russian-bought Facebook ads to the public later this week.

In the wake of Facebook's disclosure, Twitter revealed that it had found 201 accounts that were linked to the IRA-backed Facebook accounts, and which also sought to push divisive political content on its platform.

Google later revealed that accounts connected to the Russian government had bought $4,700 worth of search and display ads, and that accounts with Russian internet addresses or using Russian currency purchased another $53,000 worth of ads.

Some Democratic lawmakers have said they believe the findings by Facebook, Twitter and Google thus far represent only a sliver of the full scope of Russia's use of these platforms to meddle in American politics.

Senator Mark Warner, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has criticized all three tech companies for not doing enough, and says what has been made public so far represents "the tip of the iceberg."

In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this month, Warner stressed that "all these companies need to come fully clean about what happened in 2016."

"And don't tell me they found all the ads," he said.


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